Saturday, September 26, 2015

Greg Heffley: Super Villain?

     Why do so many parents hate Greg Heffley?  Especially when he's the reason their reluctant reader - finally! - has a book in his hands?

     In 2004, Jeff Kinney took advantage of a simple truth that remedial reading teachers had long known:  Some middle school readers just aren't ready to give up the large text, the illustrations, and that all-important white-space in the books they choose.  

     I will never forget the day I was doing morning hall duty and noticed a former student sitting and reading quietly.  Thrilled to see a book in her hands, I said, "Kayla, it's so great to see you reading!  What have you got there?"

     During the course of our conversation, Kayla revealed that she had "hated to read" until I told her it was okay to read books with large text in them [even though she was in middle school].  She started to check out those books again -- "and now I love to read."

     Shortly thereafter, Greg Heffley was born, and reading teachers everywhere sent up a silent prayer of thanks (right after tearing out their hair for not creating him themselves).  And because, in publishing, no good idea ever goes uncopied, scads of similarly formatted books soon became available to kids who had given up on reading.

      Over the past decade, I've been surprised by a number of well-meaning parents who have admitted to taking Diary of a Wimpy Kid books out of their children's hands.  Why?  Because they're "baby books," not the kind of book their kid "should" be reading.

     Here's what they don't know:  The Lexile range for on grade-level readers in the eighth grade is 900 - 999.   A recent search at produced what, for many, would be a shocking revelation:  Six of the nine Wimpy Kid books are written at or above a Lexile level of 1000.

            1000 Lexile                              1000 Lexile                          1010 Lexile

          1020 Lexile                                  1060 Lexile                         1060 Lexile

     In other words, middle schoolers who enjoy the antics of Greg Heffley, et al, are more often than not reading above grade level!

     Throughout generations, "old wives" have admonished their children, "Don't judge a book by its cover!"  Because of Jeff Kinney, the adage now holds true literally as well as metaphorically.  Parents and teachers, Greg Heffley has made reading fun for kids who "hate to read."  Let's give him the respect he deserves.

Author's note:  For another look at the topic of "good" books vs. "bad" books, click this link to
                              The Mystery of the Maligned Manuscript.

Are you looking for online reading resources that can effectively impact your students' reading and test-taking skills?  Click here for eight solid reasons Why Language Arts Teachers Should Love Newsela!



Sunday, May 17, 2015

My Secret Summer Book Society

     Somehow, after a quarter century in teaching, I've turned into a risk-taker.  Not exactly sure how that happened; maybe after years and years of telling my students to do that very thing, I accidentally overheard myself.  At any rate, I'm pretty excited about my latest plan that may or may not work, and it all began with this question:  "How am I going to keep my students reading this summer?"

     Plan A was to buy a few acres of lakefront property here in Austin and suspend a couple dozen of these babies over the water.  Then I remembered, "Wait!  I'm a teacher . . ." -- and quickly moved on to Plan B.

     Knowing that my students' best resource for recommendations is other kids, I had to find a way, an easy way -- an easy, fun way -- for them to stay in touch with each other.  Facebook was out. (Those pesky child predators have a way of ruining everything.)  But was there something similar we could use?  Fortunately, my Twitter technology "go to" guy, @chrismayoh, had the answer: Edmodo.

     Here's what I know today about Edmodo.  First of all, it's free!  Plus, you will be asked to verify that you are a classroom teacher which, for me, lends a level of credibility to the company's claim of online security: "Edmodo makes a teacher’s daily life easier by providing a safe and easy way for teachers and students to engage and collaborate for free, anytime, anywhere. "  Upon verification, you can create a page that looks something like this --

-- after which you will be given a code that must be used to gain access to the site, further assuring the expectation of privacy for your students.

     From this point forward, the sky's the limit.  I'm pretty sure there are a billion different ways to use Edmodo, but so far, this is what I'm come up with for Mrs. McHale's Secret Summer Book Society:
  • I've posted a link to Common Sense Media's Best Book Series list.  As the summer progresses, I intend to add more book recommendation lists, a practice that will be continued into the fall. This past school year, I had a certain degree of success using Google Drive for that purpose, but I think Edmodo will be even better.
  • The website calendar shows book signing events throughout the months of June, July, and August.  Eventually, it will also feature book release dates -- such as the May 18th release of Maximum Ride Forever, the newest in a popular series by James Patterson -- as well as the premiere dates of any movies made from books the kids have read or might want to read.  For example, James Dashner's The Scorch Trials is set to debut in movie form on September 18.  ("Movie books" are another effective way to spark reading among your students.  For more on that topic, see Reeling in Student Readers with Movies and How Hollywood Made My Students Read.)
  • Using Edmodo's "Assignment" feature, the students will receive, on June 1, a request to post a picture of their "Book Pile" on June 30.  This will let them know to hang on to the books that they've finished.
Example of a June 30 "book pile."  (Hey, a teacher can dream, can't she?)

  • Students will be encouraged to share great books they've enjoyed as well as to post pictures of themselves reading, especially if they're on vacation in some exciting place!  (There is NOTHING that middle schoolers love more than looking at pictures of themselves doing whatever.) 
  • At least one social gathering will be announced via Edmodo.  Our school librarian is toying with the idea of opening the the library one day this summer for that purpose.  Other ideas include meeting at a local bookstore, most likely on a book signing date, or even just a book share/picnic on the school grounds.

          I hope, by summer's end, to know a lot more about Edmodo's capabilities, but I wanted to pass Plan B along to a few close friends in case you wanted to try it out, too. Just don't tell anyone else, okay?  It's a secret!

     Have you encountered parents with an irrational hatred of their child's beloved Diary of a Wimpy Kid books?

Find out why parents -- especially parents of reluctant readers -- need to learn to love Greg Heffley:  "Greg Heffley: Super Villain?"

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Feasting at the Poetry Buffet

     It's fourth period on a Friday afternoon, and twenty 8th graders are in various stages of wrapping up their poetry projects.  Some of them are sampling selections from the "Poetry Buffet," an extensive hodge podge of laminated poems I've collected over the years;  some are writing personal responses to poems they finished reading.  Other students are creating original "found" poetry on Read.Write.Think.'s Word Mover App.  (You've got to check it out;  they loved it!)

By student request, we are listening to Bach's Prelude in D Minor on guitar.  The only two disruptions in the lesson occur when students announce "I feel a poem coming on!" at which point, we must all stop to hear their dramatic readings of "I, Too, Sing America," by Langston Hughes, and "About the Teeth of Sharks," by John Ciardi.  Not only are the presentations vastly entertaining, some students feel inspired to look for one or both of those poems to add to their "buffet" collection.

     In other words, it was one of those perfect days that just kind of happens.

     For the first time in my teaching career, I decided to use National Poetry Month as an opportunity to immerse my sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students in poetry.  Their primary activity, the "Poetry Buffet," had students roaming from desk to desk, reading the poems that caught their fancy and writing a brief personal response to each.  Occasionally, we would gather as a class to enjoy such professional recordings as Christopher Lee reciting "The Raven."  Structured analysis took the form of two "Examine the Elements" assignments in which the students looked for examples of the sound devices and figurative language we'd studied the first semester.  It was all very low key.

     Throughout the month, students were offered extra credit for interacting with poetry in various ways.  In addition to the spontaneous recitations mentioned above, they were encouraged to send me "Poetweets" via Twitter --

-- or to submit original creations like this gem:
     Not only was the overall student response to the unit unexpectedly positive -- enthusiastic, even -- but a number of parents also felt compelled to chime in with their own fond memories of poetry "back in the day" . . .

especially when I sent out the announcement about our participation in National Poem in Your Pocket Day:

Turns out this mom's treasured memory was of William Carlos Williams' "This is Just to Say":

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

     Time and again, I was surprised by the poems that spoke to the children and to their parents.  Time and again, the children were surprised that poetry spoke to them at all, something I learned from the culminating essay, a reflection on insights and discoveries they'd had about poetry throughout the month.  Other insights?

     "I used to think poetry always had to rhyme."

     "I was surprised how much fun it is to write poetry!"

     "I learned that I really enjoy reading poetry aloud."

     "I couldn't believe how many different forms of poetry there are."

     The poems taught the students more about poetry.  Their poetry taught me more about them.  We read.  We wrote.  We recited.  Everyone grew from the experience.  Not a bad way to spend the month of April.

     (If you are interested in compiling your own "Poetry Buffet," Poetry Speaks to Children is a magnificent resource, beautifully illustrated and filled with an incredibly diverse collection of poems.)

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Bad Kitty Says "No!" to Lexile Levels

Meet Kevin Lester,* sixth grader:
  • On each of this year's reading assessments, Kevin has proven his ability to read at the 12.9+ grade level.  
  • Last month, Kevin took first place in the city-wide Science Fair, competing against students in the sixth, seventh, and eighth grade.
  • This past weekend, he participated in the middle school State Ready Writing competition and took second place. As he explained to me after class this morning, "Last year, I wrote a very serious and detailed essay, and I didn't place at all.  So this year, I decided to change my strategy and write something really wacky." (Apparently, it worked.)
In other words, Kevin is REALLY smart.

     You can imagine my surprise, therefore, when I noticed him reading Nick Bruel's Bad Kitty for President during Silent Sustained Reading (SSR) this week.

     At a Lexile level of 690 (approximately the 4th grade reading level), Bad Kitty is perfectly appropriate for a struggling sixth grade reader.  But Kevin?  Sidling up to his desk, I nonchalantly inquired, "So what do you think of that book?"
     Grinning from ear to ear, Kevin gave me a big thumbs up and went back to reading.  Hmm.  Clearly, he likes it.  And why?


     If you're familiar with middle school children, you know that they are ALL over the place -- physically, mentally, socially, psychologically, and every other '-ly.'  Depending on which aspect of the whole child you're discussing, one middle school boy like Kevin can be a bizarre hodge-podge of ages ranging from 8 to 18.  That, in a nutshell, is why they're so weird!  Who can blame them?
     Given all those variables, can you understand why it's a little silly to restrict children's reading to materials in their Lexile range?  If I were to follow that protocol, here's a sampling of what Kevin would be digging into this week:

A Theory of Conceptual Intelligence by Rex Li, or

Fyodor Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamzov, 
or this beloved sixth-grade classic:

Annotations on First Corinthians by Philipp Melanchthon.

     Are you kidding me?  No offense to the really smart guys who wrote those books, but even I don't want to read them!  
     If Kevin Lester is smart enough to beat out all the other sixth, seventh, and eighth-grade participants in the city-wide Science Fair, I think we can trust him to choose the books he'll enjoy reading on any given day.  Obviously, he didn't get to the 12.9+ reading level on a strict diet of Bad Kitty books, right? As for those three books you see above:  They're a full 100 Lexile points BELOW Kevin's actual reading level.  I couldn't find any books on a high enough level for him at
     If I have to choose between making Kevin Lester* read books "appropriate" for his reading level or allowing him to devour the occasional silly morsel of his own choosing, Bad Kitty for President will get my vote every time.

* Children's names have been changed to protect the innocent.  As usual, all adults are guilty as charged.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Twitter University

     I am a student at Twitter University, an institution of higher learning that is open 24-hours a day.  You choose your own classes with lessons offered by experienced, educated, and enthusiastic teachers of limitless backgrounds and perspectives. The world is your classroom.

    I regularly attend classes on Saturday morning in my bedroom where, sometimes, coffee is delivered in my favorite mug by a very nice man who just happens to be my husband.  (No, I don't know what I did to deserve him.  Thank you so much for asking.)  Here is what I learned today:, aka @RWTnow, introduced me to Word Mover, an intriguing app for creating poetry during National Poetry Month (which I also learned about on Twitter).  We'll be trying it out next week in Room 213E.  By the way, did you know that National Poem in Your Pocket Day is on April 30 this year?  I didn't either until @MrSchuReads and @MrsPstorytime told me yesterday!

@DrMaryHoward, an educational consultant and author, reminded me of the importance of read-alouds, the practice I am most likely to abandon whenever I'm feeling a time crunch.  (Just where did I put that great Read-Aloud Anthology?)

In "What I Know to be True," Katherine Sokolowski reaffirmed what I've long known to be true:  I have the greatest job in the world, a job for which I'm actually paid to hang out with kids and books every day of the week.  I look forward to learning more from Ms. Sokolowski at Read.  Write.  Reflect, her blogsite to which I now subscribe.  (You can, too!)  During my time there this morning, I came across a series of books by Andy Griffiths that I think will be just right for my 6th grade devotees of "Wimpy Kid" style books.  Thanks, @katsok!

Here's a new mini-poster I got for my classroom:

And thanks to @edudemic,  I've got a new pre-reading guessing game to use with my students when advertising great reads during our weekly "book talks."  

     Not bad for a morning's "work," eh?  Oh, and before I forget, here's the best news of all:  Tuition is free!  But you'll have to get your own coffee.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Old Dog in the 21st Century

     Let me begin by admitting that I am the "old dog."  I began teaching back in a time when PCs did not exist.  Neither did iPhones or iPads or Twitter or Tumblr . . . you get the iDea.  Needless to say, I've spent the past couple of decades learning scads of "new tricks" -- enthusiastically, for the most part.  But when I first started hearing about "brain theory" and various hypotheses that technology is "changing the way our children think," my initial reaction as an old TEXAN dog was, well, "B.S."*
*Cow patty bingo -- Google it.

     A few years back, though, my colleagues and I started to notice something strange -- strange, even for middle school students.  (And that's saying something.)  When presented with a list of tasks, most students started with Task #1 and methodically worked their way down the list.  That's what "everyone" does, right?  Wrong.  Periodically, we'd spot a random student who would start his work with Task #4.  Or he would begin with Task #1 but then skip around, picking and choosing the order that he preferred.  What???

     At first, we teachers chalked it up to middle school squirreliness, something found in abundance on campuses nationwide.  But as we noted the phenomenon with increasing frequency, we began to suspect that something was afoot.  Why on Earth were children suddenly incapable of following a simple list of instructions?

     A glimmer of insight emerged one day in the library as I observed a student working at the computer with our librarian, Paulette Rodriguez (See

     "Eggbert,** stop clicking all over the screen," admonished Mrs. Rodriguez.  "Just go to the list of steps I've provided and follow them one by one."

     After class, as Paulette and I stood scratching our heads over the mysterious ways of the preteen, Paulette said, "Did you notice how he was clicking all over the screen?  It was as if he were playing a video game!"

     Had we been cartoon characters, that would have been the moment for light bulbs to appear above our heads.  Oh.  My.  Gosh.  After years and years of video gaming, some students are so oriented toward the "point and click" approach to seeking information, linear thinking is no longer their default strategy.  [The writer pauses a moment for readers to pick up their jaws.]

     Fast forward to third period Language Arts today.  Even before roll call, Alistair -- an 8th grader NOT renowned for his linear thinking -- fluttered around me, anxiously asking endless questions about every item on the starter list.  Mustering as much as patience as I could pretend in that moment to have, I requested that he go to his desk and begin doing Task #1.

     "I'll answer your questions in just a minute."

     After the usual start-of-class minutia, I called everyone's attention to the Smart Board rather than single out Alistair's confusion.  Pointing at Task #1, I announced, "This is where we will begin for today.  After completing that assignment, you will return your Chromebook to the cart, move on to Task #2 and, eventually, begin Task #3."

     Oh. My. Gosh.  Even as I was speaking, the realization hit me:  Alistair is one of those "nonlinear kids."    When he looks at the SmartBoard, he doesn't see a list of discrete tasks that he knows to tackle one by one;  he sees it like a gaming screen with neither a clue about where to begin nor an understanding that the tasks are presented in the order they are to be completed.  No WONDER he always seems to be on the wrong task!  

     The moral of this story?  Take a few minutes at the start of each school year to explain the concept of "following lists" to your students.  Something so obvious to "old dogs" like me might actually be a foreign concept to children born after Y2K.  Weird, huh?

**Children's names have been changed to protect the innocent.  All the adults are guilty as charged.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Twitter, Tumblr, and A Curious Tale of the In-Between

     A few months ago, I first saw the amazing cover art for Lauren DeStefano's upcoming novel, A Curious Tale of the In-Between.

Knowing my students would find it compelling, I laminated 25 copies and placed one on each desk with this message:  

     "The artwork for your new book jacket just came in!  Please submit your final draft so we can publish as quickly as possible."

     As expected, the resulting tales were wildly varied and vastly entertaining.  I believe that the students had as much fun with the writing as they did with the oral sharing.

     I did not expect what happened next.

     Prowling around on Twitter a few evenings later, I actually bumped into Lauren DeStefano herself, fielding compliments on A Curious Tale's fanciful artwork.  Emboldened by the success of my students' written responses, I sent her this tweet:

     As a lifelong book nerd, I have always regarded published authors with the level of reverence and awe most Americans reserve for Hollywood celebrities.  For Ms. DeStefano to respond to my tweet was exciting enough.  For her to make an such an offer was thrilling beyond belief!  

     You can imagine the hubbub in my eighth-grade class when I announced their opportunity for digital publication.  Everyone polished up his original draft that evening, and in class the next day, we had a round robin reading.  The students' desks were arranged in a circle, and papers were silently read and passed clockwise until each one made its way back to its author.  Upon my signal, students glued a foil star to their favorite story, and the six papers with the most stars awarded were sent to Ms. Stefano's Tumblr site:  "That sounded better in my head."

      True to her word, Lauren DeStefano posted their creations the next day, making six eighth-grade authors feel like the real deal.  In return, she won a whole new fanbase here in Austin, Texas, six of whom will undoubtedly buy her book!

     I've attached their work below if you would care to see the creative writing one amazing picture can inspire among your students!

Claire K
A Curious Tale of the In-Between
I don’t know my name.  I am 17.  And I am alone.
I have been alone for a long time, longer than I care to remember. When I try to bring together the pieces of memories of my past, they don’t make sense to me. They are like bent, damaged puzzle pieces; I know they are supposed to fit together, but it is impossible to make them do so.
I live in a dreamlike state. I live in a world inside my head, a world where the sky is dull and the lake is clear and flower petals float down from the single spindly tree. I live in a world where I am alone. I sit on the edge of the water, my feet tucked under me and my head tilted downward, gazing at my own reflection, and I think. Confusing memories flood my mind, thoughts and ideas that I don’t understand. I stay awake; I never sleep. I don’t eat, but I never starve. The only thing I do-the only thing I know how to do-is think.
I am sitting by the water, lost in my thoughts, when I notice a shape appear behind me. A boy. He looks at me, his stare penetrating my isolated world.
“Hey.” The word sounds strange to me.  Distant.
“You’re…in a mental hospital. Treatment. And I’m not sure if you’re even listening but you should know that I’m waiting for you to come back.”
With that sentence, my jumbled memories finally begin to mean something.
Each day, the boy continues to break his way into my world, and each day, my confusion lessens. On the ninth visit, I remember the boy’s name. On the tenth, I remember my own. And by the eleventh, I know that someday the boy will be able to pull me out of my little world and back into reality.

Ryan B
The Curious Tale of the In-Between
    Stephanie Baines has a special talent. Some girls are good at dancing. Other girls sing. Stephanie… she can see the dead. But not without a reflective surface. For instance, if Stephanie looked around, she would see nothing unordinary.  But if she looked in the reflection of the water in front of her, she could very clearly see the boy standing behind her, watching her. Of course, the dead never know she sees them. No one else can, so why would she? So when Stephanie said something to him, he was surprised. So surprised that he stopped dancing around and making faces at her!
    “Can you teach me how to dance like that?” she joked.
     His face turned bright red. “Why can you see me? How?” he asked her.
     She just smiled at him and giggled. “Next time, think again before you embarrass yourself like that. There are more of us than you think.” Stephanie was lying of course, but the boy didn’t know that.
     And so began the tale of Stephanie and the boy in the reflection. They became good friends, those two, and made many memories together. As time passed, Stephanie grew older, but John never aged.
     Over time, the unlikely friends grew further and further apart. Stephanie Baines left for college one day. She never saw the pond or the strange boy again.

Emily M
A Curious Tale of the In-Between
    Lucy Kale lives among the dead. The odd thing is, she is alive, but all of her friends are dead.   Her best friend, Tyler, drowned in a pond at the neighborhood park when they were only eight.  Most have forgotten Tyler, but Lucy hasn’t. To her, Tyler is very much alive. She sees him every time she goes to the park where he died, in the reflection of the pond. Tyler always asks her to come with him into the depths of the water. For years she has refused, but one day, Lucy finally jumped in.
    Something unexpected happened. She was surrounded by people, average people, like someone you’d see in a shop. Lucy looked around, curious of how this was possible. She was underwater, for goodness sake!
     Tyler watched her expression, then whispered into her ear, “We are the In-Between. We’re dead, but only according to the living. We feel we’re still alive, but not ready to leave just yet.”
     Lucy observed the people around her. They all appeared to be under the age of 15.
    “I don’t understand,” she said, scared.
    Tyler didn’t react with sympathy. Instead, he took her hand and led her down a dark, narrow path, saying, “You will one day.”

Elena A
Joe’s Pond
    As soon as the school bell rang, Margaret slammed her books shut and ran outside to her bicycle. She straddled it and rode away, just as her friends were discussing a game of cricket.
    Riding through the small Yorkshire town of Wetherby, Margaret passed St. John’s Church, the bakery, and Mrs. Meade’s flower shop. Every person that saw her clatter by on the red bike seemed to cluck their tongue sorrowfully as if to say, “Poor girl.”
    She rode until she reached Dolly’s Corner, an old, undeveloped field on the Morton farm. Margaret skittered to a stop, a mix of anxiety and anticipation overtaking her. She looked left and right, for this was her secret, and no one could know.
    Certain that no one was watching her, Margaret began to step carefully toward the pond, curling her fists nervously. A cool breeze rustled the cattails as Margaret looked down at her reflection, mesmerized. Sure enough, there he was. Her brother Joe. Killed in action at the Battle of the Somme.
    “Hello, Joe,” she breathed.
    “Hi, sis.” His voice seemed to come to her on the wind. She whirled around, hoping against hope that he would really be standing behind her. He wasn’t.
    Looking back into the pond, Joe was gone.

Amanda T
A Curious Tale of the In-Between
    Lucy is different. Of course she doesn’t think she is, but everyone else does. Countless therapist appointments and trips to the doctor didn’t really do anything for her. She never told anyone about the boy.
     The boy is everywhere she goes, the boy who never ages, the boy who has watched her grow up. She never told the countless therapists, doctors, or even her parents. She was too smart for that. He never really talked or did anything to conceal himself in reflections;  he just stared. Lucy just stared back.
     She came up with theories of what he could be, maybe a ghost, or one of those people from Tuck Everlasting who never aged. She always saw him as a comfort, but of course, no one else could see him.  
     Finally, Lucy couldn’t take it anymore and asked him the question she’d been wanting to ask for a very long time. “Who are you?”
Just as she expected, he only stared, but she could’ve sworn she saw something in his eyes. Amusement? Anger?
     She brushed him off and just sat at the edge of the pond staring. Just as she had done for ten years. She stuck in her toes, but was pulled under by none other than mysterious boy. He hugged her, and when she came back up, she was shocked. Never in her life had someone actually showed he cared. She never saw the boy after that day. She was happy and reached out to her parents.
     All grown up, the girl returned and just as she had done for many years she looked in the pond. The boy was there. She smiled, he winked, and she left without a word.

Samantha K
A Curious Tale of the In-Between
    “Get away!” she screamed. The girl was running towards the pond. She had mud all over her clothes. Her arms and legs were caked with blood. She had to get out of this awful place, this nightmare. The girl tripped, but continued to drag herself closer to the pond, digging her nails into the moist dirt.
    Something pierced her skin. “Please, let me go,” she whimpered. She was only a couple of feet away from the pond. Something kept scratching her leg, tearing her flesh. The girl didn’t dare look behind her. She was focusing on the pond. Rolling with the last of her strength, she splashed into the shallow water.
    The girl pushed her head under water then came back up to the surface. She was home. A small cottage was right in front of her, and her friend that only she could see stood right next to the pond.
    “I can’t believe you used to live there,” said the girl.
    The boy smiled, “Now I live here, but you know the plan. I’ll be gone soon.”
    “Jane! Come inside for dinner!”
    “Mom is calling me. I’ll see you tomorrow.” She raced out of the pond. Her clothes were ruined, but there was no sign of blood, and the pain had left her.
     The next day, Jane put her plan into action. “Hey, Thomas. Ready?” With a nod of his head, her friend had disappeared. The pond started shining. There was a flash. Jane jumped in the water and lifted her head. Her little cottage was there, and her friend was there, too. They were both in the pond now, stuck there forever.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

An LA Teacher's Dream Come True

     Yesterday was the day students were assigned to enter the room with rough drafts in hand, ready to begin the peer-editing process.  Class started with the usual bustling around, exchanging papers, and procuring the all-important color pens required for the task.  Eventually, everyone settled in to reading each other's text . . . and something wonderful happened.

     Utter silence fell over the room as the students became absorbed by their work.  After a while, conversations flared up:  Partners began asking questions, offering suggestions, collaborating toward the goal of refining each other's work.  Students asked me questions, too -- good ones.  Questions that went waaaay past mechanics and into the realm of style and tone.

     A lot of the students weren't satisfied with just one editor.  Of their own accord, many sought out what I call "another set of eyeballs to roll across the page."

     Did I mention that yesterday was a Friday?  Yet such was the atmosphere of every class in Room 213E, straight through to the final bell of the day.  I didn't feel like a middle school Language Arts teacher:  I felt like a paid professional consultant at a writers' workshop.  (If only I'd had a video camera.)  I can't wait to read what they've written!

    Wonderful though yesterday was, I knew that it would come.  It happens every year -- eventually.   Each year, one of the hardest things for students (and their parents) to accept is that learning to write well is a long and difficult process.  It's probably even more difficult for Americans, given our "quick fix" mindset.  Lots of kids want to give up along the way, particularly if everything else in life comes easily to them.  All a teacher can do is plug away at allaying their fears, offering advice and encouragement, and promising them that, eventually, the pieces will fall into place.

     Yesterday just may have been that day.


Monday, February 16, 2015

Book Ledgerdemain

     If you've ever taken a single student to the library, then you know this is true:  Kids are more likely to choose a book if they have seen its cover.  Librarians know that.  That's why these exist:

     Book stores know it, too.  That's why rows of books are occasionally interrupted by books that are shelved "face out."

     So why don't Language Arts classrooms look like this: 

     Is that not fabulous?  I guarantee those books would fly off the ledges faster than a pigeon that's spotted an unprotected breadcrust.  Here's another question:  Why don't the other core classes have book ledges, too -- ledges displaying all that nonfiction text we want our kids to read?

     And before you start up with the whole money thing, here's the link to a video about building $10 ledges:

The final product looks like this.

     Every single person I've told this idea loves it.  So why don't I have book ledges yet?  I'm starting to worry they're hoping I'll forget about them.

     But I won't.  It's too good an idea.  

Friday, January 30, 2015

Einstein Read Fairy Tales

"You've got to kiss a lot of frogs in order to find your prince."
"Sometimes, an ugly duckling turns into a beautiful swan."
"He's a regular Pied Piper with those kids!"

     Fairy tales are tightly woven into the fabric of American culture, but fewer and fewer kids read them.  In fact, if it weren't for the Walt Disney movies, a lot of kids would be completely unacquainted with those timeless tales.  What a shame!  Fortunately, though, savvy authors of children's and YA lit are spinning those yarns into literary gold -- and luring young readers back into the Grimm world of make-believe.
Click here to read Chapter One
of Fairest, Marissa Meyers' latest fairy tale rewrite.
But wait!  There's more!

     The following lesson plan sprinkles a trail of bread crumbs back to the enchanted forest.  
Our tour guide?  Rumpelstiltskin.

Day One:  

     As the students read along with Kathleen Turner's wonderful performance for Rabbit Ears Audio, they sharpened their character analysis skills by seeking out text evidence to support inferences about the King:

     Because they are middle school students, we also discussed all sorts of outrageous "wonders" about the plot:

     "If he can spin straw into gold, why does he want her ring and her necklace?"
     "What does he want the baby for?"  (((EW!!!!)))
     "What IS Rumpelstiltskin?"

Day Two:  
     We got out our composition books for a creative writing activity stolen straight from a review of Gary D. Schmidt's Straw into Gold:

"What would have happened if the queen had failed to guess Rumpelstiltskin's name and the odd little man had taken her child? Why did he want the young prince?"  Fast forward ten years into the future and tell the story of the prince who was taken by Rumpelstiltskin.

     The students had a blast entertaining each other with their scary, hilarious, and outright ridiculous visions of the boy's future while I was able to interject questions and observations about setting, point of view, foreshadowing, hyperbole, etc, without their even realizing we were reviewing elements of literature -- (kind of an educational equivalent to slipping the dog's heartworm pill into a Snausage).

     After abundant time to enjoy each other's stories, I sent the students to "Rumpelstiltskin Rewrites," a list of books in which Rumplestiltskin and other fairy tales have been reimagined as YA fiction. 

     This lesson plan works . . . well, like magic with sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students. During SSR the following week, students were spotted reading Adam Gidwtiz' A Tale Dark & Grimm, Marissa Meyer's Cinder and Fairest, and a collection of Grimm's Fairy Tales.

For a description of a dream class come true, see An LA Teacher's Dream Come True

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Print and Post

     Have you noticed that technology policies meant to protect our students can sometimes cut them off from really good info?  Here's how I smuggle an occasional tidbit past the Educational Cone of Silence:

Tweet of the Week!

     While I have no desire to be "tweeps" with my middle school students, they definitely need to hear what many of my contacts have to say, SO . . .

Tweet of the Week!

I snap a screenshot off my phone, print an 8 "X 10" of the image, and post it as the Tweet of the Week! in my classroom.  (For instructions on taking screenshots on your Smartphone, consult the nearest teenager.)  Not only do students hear new voices recommending great books, Twitter users can "follow" wonderful new resources for "books to read" -- +Fierce Reads, @colbysharp, @nerdybookclub, etc.

      Since few things are more motivating to middle school students than the prospect of being "first" with anything -- fashion, technology, and, yes, books -- Twitter is also my favorite resource for "Coming Soon to a Bookstore Near You!"

Step 1:  Print and post covers of soon to be released titles.  

Step 2:  Mention the books in class.  

Step 3:  Fan the flames of anticipation.

Step 4:  Chuckle diabolically.

Step 5:  When the book arrives, display it on a whiteboard tray with the note "It's FINALLY 
              here!" written directly above it.

     One last thing, teachers (and this is a tip that can save you time and money):  Because I was spending the last week before school moving 24 years of teaching materials into my new classroom, I ran out of time to craft one of those glorious displays of yesteryear.  Panicked and feeling more than a little lame, I just started tacking interesting stuff onto a pristine corkboard.  (I didn't even cover it with blue butcher paper.  The horror!)

My students LOOK AT IT, probably because my shame stopped me from making A Big Honkin' Deal of it.  Also, it's constantly changing.  They sometimes refer to the quotes and comix during our class discussions.  Now, I do, too.  While theme-free bulletin boards are probably illegal in most elementary schools, you middle school wranglers might want to give this a try.

Once upon a time, kids read fairy talesThe Sustained Reader explains why they should be reading them still:  Once Upon a Time, Kids Read Fairy Tales .